Religion, science, and the humanities: An interview with Barbara Herrnstein Smith

posted by Nathan Schneider

Barbara Herrnstein Smith is a distinguished literary scholar at both Brown and Duke, who, since her undergraduate days, has had a special interest in the uses and misuses of scientific psychology. Her latest book, which stems from her 2006 Terry Lectures at Yale University, is Natural Reflections: Human Cognition at the Nexus of Science and Religion (Yale, 2009). It explores the ways in which contemporary cognitive science and evolutionary psychology are being called upon to, once and for all, explain religion. Also, don’t miss her contributions to The Immanent Frame’s discussion “A cognitive revolution?

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NS: Natural Reflections has been the subject of a lively debate (here and here) on Stanley Fish’s blog at The New York Times. Have you found the exchange productive?

BHS: One-shot retorts, or seesaw exchanges on blogs, are rarely models of intellectually productive discussion, but Stanley Fish’s columns attract thoughtful readers, and I found the responses to his column on Natural Reflections instructive. Two related anxieties were repeatedly voiced on the basis of Fish’s description of my evenhanded—or, in fact, determinedly symmetrical—treatment of religious beliefs and what we take as scientific knowledge. One is that I am flattening out important differences between them. The other is that I’m refusing to take a stand on a major issue of our time, and thus—wittingly or unwittingly—giving aid and comfort to the wrong side.

The first of these worries is unwarranted. While I locate the differences between “science” and “religion” on multiple levels, I don’t diminish either the significance of such differences or the stakes that may be involved in identifying them accurately.

The second worry is, I think, misplaced in principle, and reflects increasingly oversimplified public views of science, religion, and the relations between them. Most of the commentators anxious about what side the book comes out on are concerned, I think, about such issues as the promotion of creationist ideas in science classes, or the clerical condemnation of contraceptive devices or homosexuality—that is, public issues in which noisy literalist convictions clash with established scientific accounts, or where informed secular attitudes are confronted by uncompromising ecclesiastic doctrine. Such concerns are understandable and I share them. But taking a clear stand on such issues does not require choosing sides between Science and Religion, conceived as monolithic adversaries in an epic battle.

NS: How does this kind of discussion compare with what your previous books have generated?

BHS: Though I think of myself as a peace-loving scholar, what you call “lively debate” seems to be my destiny—or, perhaps, addiction. Virtually all of my books have been involved in lively enough intellectual clashes: value wars, theory wars, culture wars, and science wars, among others. In the late 1980s, at the height of the so-called canon wars, a writer for The New York Times described Contingencies of Value as “a bible of relativism”—and he didn’t mean it as a compliment. Indeed, it was my initially surprised encounter with such overheated reactions to my account of literary value that led me to think more closely about such head-on intellectual collisions—what I came to call “the microdynamics of incommensurability.” I describe how they play out in current debates over belief, knowledge, truth, and science in two subsequent books, Belief and Resistance and Scandalous Knowledge.

NS: Well before the publication of the book, videos of the Terry Lectures on which it is based were available online. Did responses that you received from the public or other scholars on the basis of those videos affect how the book developed?

BHS: Some people who watched the videos told me about it and murmured general appreciations, but what affected the development of Natural Reflections most significantly were the responses of students to presentations of my views in seminars that I gave at Duke and Brown while turning the lectures into a book. The groups included, at various times, the daughter of a rabbi, two strenuous secularists from abroad, a devotee of Daniel Dennett, and at least five people reexamining their relation to the Catholic Church. I found, without quite planning it, that my efforts in each session were directed in large measure to keeping everyone on board—engaged, active, talking, and thinking, rather than grandstanding or sulking—as we went through the readings. By the conclusion of each semester, there seemed to be a way of putting things—of describing and understanding the nature of “religion,” “science,” “belief,” and the relations among them—that was acceptable to virtually everyone (though I lost the rabbi’s daughter early on, and one of the hard-line secularists held out to the bitter end). It was the process of reaching that way of putting things, and especially discovering what made it go well or badly, that was crucial for what I came to see and want as the ethos of the book.

NS: What first brought you, as a scholar of literature, to matters of science and religion?

BHS: As it happens, one of my first published works (in a magazine of undergraduate writing at City College in New York in the 1950s) was on the psychology of religious conversion. I was much taken by William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, though I also kept a copy of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra in my pocket. Matters of science, particularly biology and psychology, occupied me centrally during my school years and, though I went on to receive degrees in literature and have worked in such fields as Renaissance poetry and critical theory, those interests have remained strong and are reflected in virtually everything I have written.

As for matters of religion, they were there all along, though I didn’t always identify them as such. Of course, when Renaissance poetry isn’t about love, it’s about religion. My experiences studying and teaching works such as Donne’s Holy Sonnets and, for several years, Milton’s Paradise Lost stood me in good stead in my recent encounters with Christian theology, contemporary biblical exegesis, and the complexities of religious sentiment. Also, critical theory has always been concerned with the nature of truth and the operations of rhetoric, imagination, illusion, and belief—think of Aristotle’s Poetics—all questions that are central as well to the study of religion.

NS: The Times posts mention your once having worked with the great psychologist B. F. Skinner. Did he influence you, and has his influence borne itself out in your career?

BHS: The answer is yes, but it needs some context. What brought me into Skinner’s orbit was not behaviorism. It was a summer job as a technician in his laboratory when I was already a student in literature at Brandeis.  But I learned a lot about behaviorism along the way—certainly enough to know that it was not manifestly absurd or Satanic. Most significantly, as it turned out, I had the chance to read Skinner’s Verbal Behavior in manuscript—which is to say, before Noam Chomsky’s review of it. Few people have actually read the book, which has nothing to do with rats, pigeons, or Pavlovian-conditioned children. In any case, the account Skinner develops there helped form my sense of language-use as a dynamic, embodied, context-sensitive social practice. Other major influences on that view were books I was reading around that time by anthropological linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf and literary theorist Kenneth Burke—both home-grown American originals, I might note, like Skinner himself.

All of this inclined me to be skeptical of what I saw as Chomsky’s impoverished conception of language and implausible account of how it is acquired and used—and also, for related reasons, of Habermas’s notion of communication ethics. These and other skepticisms deriving from, among other things, my undergraduate work on the psychology of perception, early encounters with William James and Dewey, and that pocketful of Nietzsche put me at odds for the next fifty years with widely held views in language theory, value theory, epistemology, and, most relevantly for this conversation, what is now called cognitive science.

NS: What, in particular, about recent cognitive science of religion caught your attention?

BHS: In spite of the skepticisms just mentioned, I approached works such as Lawson and McCauley’s Rethinking Religion, Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained, and Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust with considerable interest, viewing them initially as contemporary continuations and updates of the great naturalistic tradition in the study of religion—works by figures such as Hume, Weber, and Durkheim. The up-front association with evolutionary theory was intriguing, and I hoped to find out what was new in both anthropology and religious studies, and perhaps have something to report about it all for my Terry Lectures.

In the course of working through several shelves of volumes and numerous articles and reviews, I learned quite a bit about the institutional politics of religious studies and about some exceedingly bemusing beliefs and practices exhibited by people around the globe. But what ended up engaging my attention most significantly were the no less bemusing beliefs and practices exhibited by these contemporary researchers of religion themselves. So, I decided to frame my report on these developments from my perspective as a part-time sociologist of knowledge and to include, in my assessment of the now self-dubbed “cognitive science of religion” (I call it the New Naturalism), some duly critical and cautionary observations.

NS: How much do you think cognitive science, when shed of its more ideological exaggerations, can really tell us about religion?

BHS: What seems right to me is the idea that many widespread and recurrent types of belief and practice associated with religion reflect the operation of quite general human cognitive and behavioral tendencies. That idea doesn’t originate, of course, with cognitive science. Expressed in different terms, we find it in Hume’s Natural History of Religion and the work of many later theorists of religion. What’s more original in the new approach is the idea that many of those tendencies reflect the evolutionary history of the species. To the extent that the cognitive science of religion elaborates those ideas and connects them to other ongoing work on religion, culture, cognition, and human behavior, its contributions can be substantial. What seems dubious to me is the claim that the tendencies in question reflect the activation of specific Stone Age mental mechanisms that can be, or already have been, identified by cognitive scientists. What seems utterly stultifying is the attendant suggestion that everything else said about religion is irrelevant, superficial, or pre-scientific.

NS: How much does this New Naturalism share with the New Atheism of Richard Dawkins and, for instance, Daniel Dennett, whose Breaking the Spell calls for a new, naturalistic science of religion?

BHS: It’s important not to confuse the project I refer to as the New Naturalism—that is, cognitive-evolutionary studies of religion—with the so-called New Atheism. The New Naturalists are attempting to explain religion; the New Atheists are seeking to discredit it. Not all New Naturalists are atheists, and the project does not arise from an antipathy to religion. Boyer, a cheerful Frenchman, generally maintains an anthropologist’s neutral distance from the beliefs he describes. Atran, a serious American, expresses an ambivalent appreciation of religion throughout his book. Dennett’s efforts in Breaking the Spell, which would qualify as New Naturalist as well as New Atheist, are limited in both regards by a very narrow understanding of religion and a correspondingly dubious conception of beliefs—religious and otherwise—as static, discrete items of cerebral furniture.

NS: By holding up the work of classicist Walter Burkert above cognitive scientists like Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer, are you arguing that scientists should leave explanations of religion to humanists?

BHS: Not at all. Burkert’s Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions figures in my book, not as a humanistic explanation of religion, but as an evolutionary-biological explanation of it that is duly historically informed and otherwise intellectually spacious—as many New Naturalist explanations are not. My point is not that humanists can explain religion (or anything else) better than scientists but that, if your objective is to develop empirically responsive, intellectually connectible naturalistic accounts of religion, then the resources of humanistic scholarship—including its archives, objects of study, participant perspectives, and techniques of analysis—should be recognized as valuable and necessary ingredients.

Burkert’s explanations of various features of religion—he deals with sacrifice, oracles, priests, prayer, moral commandments, and many other things—are often more compelling than Boyer’s or Atran’s not because they’re softer or sweeter but because, among other things, they are better grounded empirically. All three invoke evolutionary biology, primate studies, genetics, and game theory. Typically, however, Boyer’s and Atran’s explanations come down to speculations, offered as facts and findings, about hypothetical, unobservable mental mechanisms. Burkert’s accounts come down to observations (and, to be sure, also speculations) about recurrent patterns of human behavior as evidenced in manuscripts, inscriptions, historical records, and archeological artifacts.

Of course Burkert’s experience as a scholar of ancient civilizations probably made him especially attentive to political and institutional aspects of religion, and also to imaginative elaborations of religious beliefs and practices, all of which are significantly neglected in New Naturalist accounts. But such experience need not be confined to humanists. It is available to anthropologists and psychologists if they think it is significant for the project at hand. After all, Burkert, undertaking pretty much the same project as Boyer and Atran, made himself familiar with a considerable array of new research and theory in the sciences before offering an account of the psycho-biological springs of religion. The trouble is not the cognitive scientists’ limited knowledge of art, literature, or political and social history, but their failure to grant the relevance of such fields of knowledge to the ongoing project of “explaining religion.”

NS: How compelling do you find the recent trend among those trying to bring science to bear on literary theory? Should humanists generally be striving to draw more from the “hard” sciences in their work?

BHS: The question is apt. I’ve been thinking about that “trend” (as you put it) quite a bit lately, and I hope to write about it. I’m always mindful of my own early participation in such efforts—for example, in Poetic Closure, by making use of gestalt psychology to describe the perception and experience of literary forms. My models at the time—admirable ones, I still think—were E. H. Gombrich’s Art and Illusion and Leonard B. Meyer’s Emotion and Meaning in Music.

I’m certainly sympathetic to projects involving interdisciplinary incorporations and extensions and could point to an array of achievements, current as well as past, that attest to their value. Work by a number of Duke colleagues come to mind (Mark Hansen and Robert Mitchell, among others), along with Elizabeth Wilson’s recent book, Psychosomatic. As such work illustrates, relevantly informed scholars in literary studies and other humanities-based disciplines may incorporate concepts and findings from natural-science fields in ways that can be subtle, original, genuinely illuminating, and sometimes significantly transformative for their own fields. Burkert’s Creation of the Sacred is, of course, another example.

I would have to add, however, that some of the current efforts to bring science (under some very limited views of it) into literary studies are energized by extremely dubious aims and motives. I think especially of hapless offerings by people who are persuaded that their discipline has gone to the dogs (the major alleged agent of that dissolution being some vague menace called “postmodernism”) and who think it can be redeemed only by large, duly stiffening, injections of natural science. These convictions have a surprising degree of uptake among minimally informed people outside the field of literary studies, including, I’m sorry to see, some distinguished scientists.

NS: How can humanists—particularly after incidents like the Sokal Affair—make their voices heard by those in the scientific community in a productive way?

BHS: Alan Sokal is not a good representative of the scientific community in that regard, but his hoax was an effective piece of mischief that did much to deepen an already existing chasm created by a century of mutual ignorance and mutual caricature. I would stress the mutuality of that ignorance and those caricatures. Humanists and scientists are inevitably divided by significant—and, I think, by no means undesirable—differences of intellectual training, intellectual temperament, and intellectual idiom. They can converse productively with each other, however, when both recognize their own limits and provincialisms, and when each grants due respect to the worthiness of the other’s projects and achievements. The readiness of some publicly visible scientists to dismiss humanities scholarship as trivial or unenlightened is, of course, painful. But if humanists, including scholars of religion, seek to be heard across the two-culture divide, they must be willing to give ear to reports of relevant developments in the natural sciences and to acknowledge—and, I would say, challenge—the readiness of many of their colleagues to cast scientists in correspondingly demoting, not to say demonizing, roles.

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